Chicago police say actor Jussie Smollett concocted the story of a brutal hate crime because he was "dissatisfied with his salary" on the Fox drama "Empire."
At a media briefing Thursday morning, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett, who was arrested Thursday after turning himself in, paid two men $3,500 US to help him stage the fake attack after a crude, threatening letter he sent to the "Empire" set in Chicago failed to get attention.
Johnson, a black Chicago native, said Smollett "took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career."
Johnson lamented the many resources Chicago police used on an investigation that lasted weeks. Detective Commander Edward Wodnicki said detectives interviewed more than 100 individuals and utilized both police cameras and private sector cameras to plot a timeline of the alleged assault. The investigation eventually led them to the two men, who were arrested by police last week and later released without being charged. Johnson said police have a check Smollett used to pay the men.
Smollett will appear in court for a bond hearing Thursday afternoon, authorities said, and he faces as many as three years in prison. Smollett's attorneys have maintained he did not play a role in his attack.
In a matter of weeks, Smollett traveled the arc of a black and openly gay hate crime victim to potential criminal himself. The vivid details of his alleged Jan. 29 attack - a rope around his neck, an assailant's chilling words of "this is MAGA country" - captured the attention of Democratic presidential hopefuls and celebrities as a tangible result of social decay and toxic political discourse.
As Smollett's claims unraveled among inconsistencies and police gathered new evidence, conservatives blasted the incident as an example of a credulous media extending a narrative that supporters of President Donald Trump have escalated his divisive rhetoric with acts of violence.
Trump reacted to news of Smollett's arrest on Twitter Thursday. "@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA," Trump wrote.
On Wednesday, Chicago-based attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, who are representing Smollett, wrote in a statement: "Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense."
The news of the felony charge, announced by the Cook County state's attorney's office, came just hours after the city's police department said the "Empire" actor was being treated as a suspect in the criminal investigation. Police said days ago that they wanted to speak with Smollett again after new evidence "shifted the trajectory of the investigation." Police first investigated the incident as a possible hate crime.
There have been heightened doubts about Smollett's allegations amid news reports, which cited unnamed police sources, he may have staged the attack. In a statement late Saturday, attorneys Pugh and Henderson said Smollett had "been further victimized by claims" he "played a role in his own attack."
"Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying," they wrote in the statement, adding one of the individuals who spoke to police was a personal trainer whom Smollett hired to help him get ready for a music video.
Smollett has aligned himself in the past with organizations dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness, civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy. He invoked this while discussing the skepticism surrounding his claims during an interview that aired last week on "Good Morning America."
"I'm an advocate. I respect too much the people - who I am now, one of those people - who have been attacked in any way," he told ABC's Robin Roberts. "You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this."
When details of Smollett's alleged assault were released by police last month, celebrities and other high-profile figures rallied around him - some seizing on the apparently racist and homophobic nature of the alleged attack or the reported invocation of Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan. But mounting questions surrounding the case caused unease.
"Why would he make it harder for people who actually suffer from hate crimes? It makes no sense. The lie is so damaging," writer Roxane Gay tweeted Saturday. She previously wrote she hoped Smollett "knows how many people are thinking of him and committed to holding this administration and its ilk accountable for this hothouse of hate being fostered."
As the case was increasingly scrutinized, some questioned whether Smollett staged the attack to prevent being written out of "Empire," a theory Fox denied even as questions swirled around Smollett's allegations. On Thursday, Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Entertainment said in a statement "we understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options."
Several politicians initially spoke out in support of Smollett but have since adjusted their stances, including Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, who called for judgment to be withheld until the investigation has been completed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., deleted a tweet that referred to the alleged attack as "an affront to our humanity."
Others, such as filmmaker Ava Duvernay, have expressed caution over putting faith in the police department. "Despite the inconsistencies, I can't blindly believe Chicago PD. The department that covered up shooting Laquan McDonald over a dozen times?" she tweeted. "Whatever the outcome, this won't stop me from believing others. It can't."
It remains unclear how the fallout may chill future allegations of hate crimes. On Feb. 16, Sal Trejo of Salt Lake City recorded video of a man who struck him after learning Trejo was openly gay. Trejo was concerned the Smollett incident would raise doubts about his own claims, he told The Washington Post.